Sometimes my attitude towards the books I review end up sounding sarcastic, but I want to shed that for this entry. (Except for one little joke, but that’s for later.) Calling a novel poetic isn’t something I say often, but for The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst — I cannot think of a single better word.
I first picked up this title from Better World Books in a bargain bin sale. Quick side note: Better World Books acquires mostly from libraries, but also from bookstore partners and individuals. With every purchase from their site, they donate to help literacy funds around the world. It’s an awesome site, filled with awesome people, and awesome books, doing awesome things for the world. It’s awesome. Did I say that enough? Okay, let’s continue.
Admittedly, the cover caught my eye first, followed by the description, and for a few bucks, I figured I’d take a chance. That was years ago, and I can’t believe I waited this long to read it. It’s on the verge of being one of those books I would read again – shocking! – it’s the kind of book that stays with you. Haunting, but not in a bad way. Other people call this book The Lovely Dog Bones, since it came out around the same time as The Lovely Bones. I liked this one better than Alice Sebold’s book though… Sorry!
The narrative follows Paul, a linguistics professor, as he copes with the grief of losing his wife Lexy. After she is found at the base of an apple tree, it’s unclear to everyone whether she died by accident, or if she killed herself. The only witness to Lexy’s demise was their Rhodesian ridgeback Lorelei. After copious amounts of research about dogs and speech, Paul embarks (ha! I didn’t mean to do that) on a new project to teach Lorelei to talk, hoping to gain the closure he desperately wants from his wife’s untimely death.
Now, my hesitation to read this book was because I read a little blip somewhere that it contained a bit of animal cruelty. As someone who has had many dogs, I didn’t think I could stomach that; however, I was able to get through it. I thought for sure, it would be Paul beating his dog Lorelei out of frustration since, hello, dogs can’t talk — but I was wrong. Paul has nothing but love for Lorelei, the last remaining piece of his late wife’s existence. For those concerned, the abuse comes in the form of a whack-job scientist Paul discovers through his research. This guy performed experiments on his animals to alter their throats to try to give them what nature hadn’t: the power of speech. The news articles and testimonies from this case fuels Paul’s study into canine linguistics. There is a messed up, creepy culmination of all of this, but I don’t want to spoil it. All I’ll say, is that it makes sense in the narrative. It’s a little gruesome, but not unbearable. (Then again, I read a lot of Stephen King.)
In chapters alternating from the present are vignettes of Paul and Lexy’s life together, which illustrate not only their relationship, but also Lexy’s complex personality. That’s something I don’t want to spoil either. Honestly, I usually don’t mind spilling the beans, but since this is a book I plan on recommending to several people, I’m restraining myself. Lexy is one of those characters that I find so incredibly interesting, and from Parkhurst’s story-telling, I yearn to know more – like Paul in many ways. The reason I call this book poetic is based largely on Lexy. She is creative, enigmatic, talented, but also sad and damaged. There’s a lot of feelings that spawn while reading about her. Some may think she’s a pretentious artist, and though that’s part of it, Lexy’s pairing with her polar opposite, Paul, makes them such a wonderful couple, making it that much harder to accept their fates. Though I’ve put a lot of focus on Lexy, I wouldn’t call this a character study. I wouldn’t say her character is more important than the plot, I’ve just put a larger emphasis on her here.
Something I greatly appreciated about this novel is the acceptance that life and relationships are not perfect, and that’s what love is. Love is so often portrayed as sunny and flawless and romantic, but there are the darker parts of the lives you share with your significant others that make up what love is, too. One of the final passages from the book reads: “I remember, always I remember, that she brought solace to my life as well as grief. That for every dark moment we shared between us, there was a moment of such brightness I almost count not bear to look at it head-on.” — And that’s okay. How many of us reflect on our loves from the past, and in our sentimental-soaked memories, glorify everything? The darkness of love is ignored and Parkhurst forces us to recognize our denial. That’s reality. That makes an impact.
Oh, the joke I was going to make: I couldn’t help but think of Bush’s Baked Beans, and the dog that always wants to give away the family recipe but his owner keeps silencing him. Especially since the dog on the cover looks just like the dog from the commercial.
“Roll that beautiful bean footage!” Okay, so it’s not really a joke… just a funny reversal of roles. But you know what I’m talking about.
Now go read that book.